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Homeless advocates search for permanent shelter

Local homeless advocates called Thursday for solidarity with their efforts to persuade the city to be more proactive in finding a permanent, one-location winter shelter in Ashland.

More than 30 community members attended a meeting Thursday afternoon at the Ashland Public Library in hopes of getting a jumpstart on an ambitious quest — establishing a stable winter shelter for the homeless population in Ashland by next winter.

The winter shelter, running between November and April, opened six days a week at three different locations last season and served up to 50 people each night.

The effort, started by two community members, is now supported by more than 220 volunteers from nonprofits such as Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland and Ashland Food Bank, and local faith groups including Trinity Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church. The churches also served as shelter locations on Mondays and Wednesdays.

But with Pioneer Hall, the shelter’s primary location, being taken off-line due to safety issues, organizers and volunteers are racing against the clock for a permanent solution before next November.

“This is urgent and important — the focus has to be on the location,” said organizer John Wieczorek. “This group is saving lives — that’s the bottom line.”

Members stressed on the importance of having a consistent space as a shelter, which not only creates a sense of stability, but also allows the homeless population to obtain help in securing jobs and housing.

Organizers said the group hasn’t settled on any potential location or the way to fund it, but it has pinpointed a number of requirements for the new space.

The building, project coordinator Phil Johncock said, has to be at least 2,200 square feet to serve up to 50 people per night, be in compliance with safety codes by having a fire sprinkler system, two bathrooms and shower, be accessible for people with disabilities, located near public transportation and follow non-discrimination rules, among other things.

OHRA President Ken Gudger estimated at the meeting that the group is looking at a price tag between $50,000 to $200,000 — a budget that the organization has yet to secured.

With many questions left unanswered, some members expressed frustration with the city.

“We want the city to be in partnership with us, and they have been … but the leadership of the city has to be problem-solving together with us,” Wieczorek said, as he pointed out no one from City Hall was at the meeting.

Johncock said the group should continue reaching out to the city, but it also needs a backup plan.

“We should invite them and give them a chance in helping us in this,” he said. “We want their participation and resources — we need their help — but we also can’t wait to follow their timeline.”

Organizer Vanessa Houk agreed, saying that members need to continue reminding the city that the project is a priority to the community members.

Volunteer Coordinator Heidi Parker advocated for the group to produce a complete plan before asking assistance from the City Council.

“We should come together with all these little pieces,” Parker said. “We are not going out and ask for help now — we will eventually in a coordinated way.”

The group, which had met twice prior to the April meeting, also identified six different subcommittees to look into different aspects of the issue — including creating a budget to lease a new space, working with the city, and looking at alternatives to a one-location shelter.

As the group went through updates from each subcommittee, members agreed to prioritize the search for a potential facility. The group sets a deadline in June before starting to elaborating on other alternatives, such as advocating for designated spots in the city for car camping.

The group is scheduled to meet again on May 17. Its website, which features updates on the subcommittees, is at www.philjohncocknetwork.com/winter-shelters.

—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.